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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Qatar: Background and U.S. Relations

Christopher M. Blanchard  
Analyst in Middle Eastern Affairs

Qatar, a small peninsular country in the Persian Gulf, emerged as a partner of the United States in the mid-1990s and currently serves as host to major U.S. military facilities. Qatar holds the third largest proven natural gas reserves in the world, and its small population enjoys the second highest per capita income in the world. The emir of Qatar, Shaikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, has managed a course of major economic growth and very limited political liberalization since replacing his father in a bloodless palace coup in 1995. The emir has undertaken several projects to capitalize on Qatar's hydrocarbon resources and improve educational opportunities for Qatari citizens in support of economic diversification. As part of Qatar's liberalization experiment, the Qatari monarchy founded Al Jazeera, the first all-news Arabic language satellite television network, in 1995. In an April 2003 referendum, Qatari voters approved a new constitution that officially granted women the right to vote and run for national office. The latest elections for the Central Municipal Council were held in April 2007. Elections are being planned for a national Advisory Council established by the new constitution, but no target date has been set. 

Following joint military operations during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Qatar and the United States concluded a Defense Cooperation Agreement that has been subsequently expanded. In April 2003, the U.S. Combat Air Operations Center for the Middle East moved from Prince Sultan Airbase in Saudi Arabia to Qatar's Al Udeid airbase south of Doha, the Qatari capital. Al Udeid and other facilities in Qatar serve as logistics, command, and basing hubs for the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) area of operations, including Iraq and Afghanistan. 

In spite of serving as the host to a large U.S. military presence and supporting U.S. regional initiatives, Qatar has remained mostly secure from terrorist attacks. Terrorist statements indicate that energy infrastructure and U.S. military facilities in Qatar remain potential targets. U.S. officials have described Qatar's counterterrorism cooperation since 9/11 as significant; however, some observers have raised questions about possible support for Al Qaeda by some Qatari citizens, including members of Qatar's large ruling family. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, Qatar's current Interior Minister provided safe haven to 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed during the mid-1990s, and press reports indicate other terrorists may have received financial support or safe haven in Qatar after September 11, 2001. 

Human rights concerns persist. The 2009 State Department human rights report on Qatar notes that basic civil liberties are restricted and states that the foreign workers who make up most of the country's population of 1.67 million "in many cases worked under circumstances that constituted forced labor." Since 2007, the State Department has reported that enacted safety and labor rights regulations remain largely unenforced, and foreign diplomats' visits to labor camps revealed "the majority of unskilled foreign laborers living in cramped, dirty, and hazardous conditions, often without running water, electricity, or adequate food." 

Qatari officials have taken an increasingly active diplomatic role in recent years, seeking to position themselves as mediators and interlocutors in a number of regional conflicts. Qatar's willingness to embrace Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas as part of its mediation and outreach initiatives has at times appeared to anger officials in other regional countries. In February 2010, Qatar signed a defense cooperation agreement with neighboring Iran. The Obama Administration has not voiced public concern about Qatar's foreign policy and, like the Bush Administration, has sought to preserve and expand military and counterterrorism cooperation with Qatar.

Date of Report: May 5, 2010
Number of Pages:30
Order Number:RL31718
Price: $29.95

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